Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Coastal region and small island papers 8
Indigenous people and parks


The islands and coastal regions along the eastern shores of the Andaman Sea are home to a distinctive people, the ‘Chao Lay’ or ‘sea nomads’, whose life styles, languages and cultures differ from the rest of Thai society. One group of Chao Lay, the Moken, maintain a semi-nomadic way of life.

Having frequented the Surin Islands, about 60 km from Thailand’s mainland coast, for at least several centuries, a group of Moken decided to establish themselves on a more permanent basis several decades ago. The Moken live as hunters and gatherers of the resources found on the land and in the sea, and they trade marine products such as sea cucumbers and shells for rice and other necessities. The 150 Moken people in the Surin Islands build their houses on stilts above the sea, and occasionally the village sites are moved in order to alleviate disputes and escape illness.

In 1981 the Thai Government declared the Surin Islands a protected area and established a national park. Under park regulations, the Moken no longer have the right to continue traditional resource harvesting, nor even to live within the park. This raises serious concern about the effects that the regulations may have on the Moken’s ability to maintain their traditional culture and lifestyle.

To address these concerns, a field project was initiated in 1997 entitled ‘A place for indigenous people in protected areas, Surin Islands, Andaman Sea, Thailand’. This project is implemented by the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute and supported by UNESCO through its Bangkok Office, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the intersectoral and interdisciplinary platform for ‘Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands’ (CSI).

Following a rapid appraisal of the issues affecting the Surin Islands’ Moken community in December 1997, a series of workshops were held during which concerned stakeholders joined efforts to sustain a dialogue which would begin to provide for the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the Moken and the Surin Islands.

The first workshop, held in Bangkok in November 1998, brought together government officials, academics and non-governmental organizations to identify the crucial issues to be addressed in order to determine sustainable development options for the Moken. A few weeks later, a second workshop was held in the Surin Islands during which the same group of stakeholders participated with the Moken in a series of activities designed to share ideas and identify the aspirations and needs of the indigenous population. A third meeting was held in March 1999 when stakeholders met to reaffirm their commitments to the project.

Following the workshops, a number of project activities were designed and are outlined in this publication. Each activity represents a step along the road to exploring sustainable development options with the Moken that allow them to maintain and enhance their lifestyle while conserving the biodiversity of the Surin Islands. The project activities include resource assessments based upon scientific and Moken ecological knowledge, preparation of reading material for Moken children, handicraft learning, basic health and welfare training, turtle conservation and giant clam mariculture. Work has already started on some of these activities and an update is included in the final chapter.

Across the region, and in many other parts of the world, finding sustainable solutions that benefit indigenous communities and the environment, while meeting national tourism and development objectives, has become a priority. The outcome of this project may serve as a model for the region and beyond.

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